Sunday, November 29, 2009

When Good Knitting Ideas Go to Hell, Part 1

I shall ease you into the abyss slowly, by starting with a tale of one project that began well this spring, and didn't end too calamitously right about now. At least I was able to effect a rescue. This is a pattern called the Slouchy Cardigan, from a rather nice knitting book, Greetings from Knit Café, by Suzan Mischer (Stewart, Tabori, Chang 2006). It is possible to download errata for the book's patterns from a website, and I did this, so I was pretty sure the sweater, which I was knitting in two shades of blue cashmere-merino blend, would turn out all right.


Since I didn't have enough slate-blue yarn to knit the entire sweater, I decided to knit the sleeves partly in periwinkle blue, and add a matching periwinkle stripe to the hood. Everything went along fine. The sweater was a quick knit, being entirely in stockinette. The problem revealed itself when I attached the hood to the body of the sweater, and realized that either the hood was sized for a shrunken head, or the sweater was meant for a baby with an adult-sized body. I don't, actually, conform to those specs. But I had followed the pattern directions correctly, and all my measurements matched the instructions. The pattern was, simply, wrong, at least for the part concerning the hood.

What's a mother to do? I frogged the hood, of course. This meant that I now had a sweater with no hood, and two bicolored sleeves that seemed out of relationship to the rest of the design.

After much cogitation, and consultation with knitting cognoscenti, I decided to blanket-stitch the inner edges of the cardigan with the lighter blue shade. (I considered knitting on an edging, but that would have excessively weighed down the triangular left and right fronts.) I may also, at a future date, embroider the lighter blue sleeve panels with trailing vines and flowers in the darker shade of blue.

On the Richter scale of knitting disasters, this is is about a 2. Yes, it is disappointing that the sweater doesn't have a hood, but it's still a nice sweater. I offer this example as a prelude to a much worse knitting scenario, to which I've already alluded in an earlier post (June 6th, 2009), "The Fascination of the Abomination." Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We Gather Together...

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and Friday is Buy Nothing Day, one of my favorite celebrations. On the lawn of the Rhode Island State House and at other locations around the state, the Green Party will be collecting and distributing overcoats to those who need winter warmth. ( Find something that's been dust-collecting in your closet and make a contribution! It's an easy way to do good and feel good.

And in the spirit of good works, may I suggest that all of the knitters who observe Buy Nothing Day turn it into Knit Something Day? If you send me a photo of your Knit Something Day project, I'll post it on the blog.

Wishing you all halcyon days of peace, freedom, warmth, opportunity, nature's beauty, and everything else we in New England and the U.S. of A. have to be thankful for.

(I'm celebrating Knit Something Day with this WIP--a scarf in the Embossed Vine and Leaves pattern from Vogue Knitting's Stitchionary)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Deborah Newton, the Julia Child of Knitting

In days of yore I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, around the corner from Julia Child. This meant, luckily, that I ran into her every so often; and whether I met her on the street, in the supermarket, or a nearby shop, I could never suppress my feelings of awe and admiration.

Emblazoned in my memory: the day I first saw JC at Kinko's Copy Center in Harvard Square (ca. November 1979). She was standing in line at the cashier's; I was in a line exactly parallel, and I looked to the right, and there she was ( at 6'2" hard to miss), wearing a black-and-white houndstooth-check coat. It was as if I'd had a religious vision. Immediately I walked over; delicately touching her sleeve, I said with slobbering gratitude, "You taught me how to cook, Julia Child, and I want to thank you." For in fact, I owned (and still own) three of her books--Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes 1 and 2, and The French Chef. Long before blogs about cooking à la française, I was working my way through Mme. Child's beautifully-laid-out repertoire. (It was just something I wanted to do, the way some birdwatchers keep a Life List.) JC took my gaga adulation with complete equanimity. She thanked me in return, asked my name, what I had cooked recently, and said she hoped we'd meet again. Which we did, as I mentioned, from time to time. And she always remembered who I was.

The genius of Julia Child is her demystification of what appeared to be a complex cuisine. She, a down-to-earth person who shopped at everyman's supermarket (Star Market on Beacon Street in Somerville), who laughed at her mistakes (like the roasted chicken au plancher, made famous on tv), always showed you how, if you just organized the steps correctly, it was really not a big deal to create a mousse au chocolat, or boeuf bourgignon. She made it abundantly clear that you didn't have to be a professional chef to succeed in the kitchen. In this she epitomized good old American knowhow--the laudable notion, so intrinsic to the practical side of our culture, that people can learn how to do complicated things on their own.

And this is what brings me to Deborah Newton, author of Designing Knitwear, one of the essential texts of knitting (first published in 1992 by Taunton Press and still in print), and luckily for me, a resident of Providence, Rhode Island. Thus it was easy to arrange an interview.

Deborah Newton is to the world of knitting what Julia Child was to the world of fine home cooking. She has the knack of communicating what you need to know to knit something beautiful from a pattern you've created yourself, and she has, as well, the encouraging "can do" philosophy that Julia Child brought to French cooking--if I can do it, you can too. As she told me, with disarming modesty, she came to design knitwear after years of knitting potholders and practice swatches from Barbara Walker's pattern dictionaries. She knew how to sew and had studied costume design at Rhode Island College. Then: "I just put the two together. It's not rocket science!"

It may not be rocket science, though designing knitwear, IMHO, is not for the faint of heart, either, mainly because there are so many things that can backfire. (On this, stay tuned for a future posting about my strange encounters with horrible patterns, entitled "When Good Knitting Ideas Go to Hell.") "People are much too intimidated" by designing knitwear," Deborah claims, and I wouldn't disagree. But in talking with her, I realized that some fundamental aspects of the design process for her connect to her background in sewing and the way sewing trains you to understand how the separate pieces of a garment are integrated, as knitting does not--perhaps because knitters don't generally cut anything with scissors. "If you look at the clothing that you wear, it's all just tubes and rectangles," Deborah pointed out.

This was an eye-opener. On the one hand, I knew that clothing is just tubes and rectangles, but on the other hand I didn't, and in a way, still don't, despite all the tubes and rectangles I've knitted. And yet simply thinking about Deborah's observation allows one to deconstruct any piece of clothing, knitted or otherwise, and so to begin, internally, the process of understanding the whys and wherefores of knitting design.

Perhaps my favorite part of Designing Knitwear is how Deborah details what it's like in the invention stage, when ideas race around and the mind is open to their variety and depth. (The creative process, she notes, "is very much the same for every craft.") Yes, as a writer, I most definitely understood this, and I understand viscerally what it's like to find a yarn that's so beautiful I want to drop everything else I'm doing and knit it into something. "Most people," she says, "start with the yarn--it's the easiest and most reliable place to begin. If you want to knit a wonderful garment, you start with a wonderful yarn." (Her book offers illuminating discussion and examples of how yarn and stitch patterns create texture, drape, and differently-weighted fabrics.) And when she talks in person about what it's like to embark on a new piece of knitting, it's all about the wonderful adventure ahead: "You're at the beginning of a road, and you cast on and go from there."

What inspires her? Often she asks the magazines for which she designs what they want. (One of her cardigan patterns is in the Holiday 2009 issue of Vogue Knitting; a long, richly textured pullover is in the Winter 2009 Interweave Knits.) But "sometimes ideas come with a button, sometimes with a shape, with a seasonal trend, a texture, or a traditional pattern stitch. Lots of times, two or three of those elements come at once. You want things to be a little surprising, but there has to be an element of unpredictability, even in a classic garment." She thinks of design "as an object. I like to demystify it. Knitting is just one of the things that some humans do." And as soon as she finishes a design, she's always thinking of the next one. "My favorite part of the process is putting things together. I love when I get to the finished state of the sweater, it is pristine, I have done all I can do, and it is as perfect as I can make it, given what I have to work with....Then I go and do it again."

"I've been very lucky to do what I love. I love knitting," she told me more than once. "It's my creative vehicle."

The belief, shared by Deborah Newton and Julia Child, that anyone can master a particular art, is a powerful incentive to novice and amateur alike. "It's the things in the corners of their lives that people are passionate about," Deborah said. And so, I hope, the encouragement offered by these two wonderful women may inspire more than a few of us to move our passions from the corners of our lives, to someplace more central.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Once upon a time...

there was a wee little yarn shop, at the edge of a beautiful forest....

It's hard to imagine a more adorable, more welcoming LYS than Country Corner Yarns in Charlestown, Rhode Island, situated next to the Millpond nature preserve, at the junction of Routes 2 and 1. While it might be the smallest LYS I've ever seen, its proprietor, Mirja Hanslin, has created an ambiance that's exceedingly comfortable, warm, and relaxing. And the diminutive size of Country Corners belies its rich selection of fine yarns, including many from Europe and the U.K., like the Bergere de France and Rowan lines (and companion pattern books).

The appeal of Country Corner ( is immediate--the building's natural wood exterior is matched inside by the rustic wood walls. One's initial focus, though, is the four big red armchairs in the center of the first room. (Regular readers of this blog know that one of my important criteria for loving a yarn store is seating and work-area placement. I am highly partial to up-front access.) Here knitters can ply their craft, peruse knitting magazines and pattern books, get project advice from Mirja, Irene, and Claudia, and chat with others. To enhance the coziness, there's also a fireplace. Sizable windows let in enough light so that the shop feels bright without glare, and you can see the yarn colors accurately. (Another bonus: classical music plays softly in the background.)

Color and warmth are everywhere. Cubbies of beautiful yarns line the walls, and yarns are ingeniously stored in cabinet-height shelving that also acts as room dividers. In the rear there's a large table at which one can spread out a knitting project or participate in a class (the shop offers several every season). The beauty of the layout is its openness to the rest of the shop, so there's no feeling of separation. This place is all about flow.

Irene DeVerna, Mirja's right-hand helper, told me she began visiting Country Corner when she was in a stressful period and needed knit therapy. It's easy to understand why she found the shop so beneficial. The sweet ambiance, the wonderful colors, and Mirja's calming presence have created a fairy-tale sanctuary for anyone who finds peace in fiber crafts.

Country Corner Yarns celebrated its third anniversary last weekend. May it flourish for many years more!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Yarn Comes on Little Cat Feet

A Boston friend, clearing out her attic in preparation for a move, came across two unfamiliar boxes and found them to be filled with an insane amount of yarn. She doesn't knit and speculates that the mystery stash is somehow connected to the detritus of her first marriage (he didn't knit either, but may have had relatives who did). Kindly, B offered me first dibs, and naturally I accepted.

They're definitely the stash of a sock knitter, these skeins, and the band colors and typography suggest ca. 1940s-1950s. I will give some of this yarn to anyone who'd like to knit socks or another garment for Afghans for Afghans, or any local homeless shelter.

I love the labels.